How God Describes Himself
Read your Bible: Exodus 34:1–10
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.Exodus 34:6
This is a study about knowing God better.
When you want to know what someone’s like, you could ask other people who know that person.
Or you could go right to the source: You could meet the person you’re interested in, hang out, ask questions.
That’s exactly what Moses does. With God.
In Exodus 33:18. Moses says,
“I beg you, show me your glory!”
And God answers.
Now, after all the wonders God showed Job, after all the creative masterpieces you saw the Psalmists singing about, after the omnipresence we studied last week, what would you expect God to reveal? What kind of scorching, lightning-bolt flash of shock and awe comes next?
What, specifically, is His glory?
What comes next is God’s great self-description. It’s the moment God defines Himself, God’s answer to the question, “What are you like?”
I mean, this is huge.
God is telling me what He wants me to really, really make sure I know about Him.
My suspicion that this is of major importance is confirmed by theologian J. Carl Laney. He points out how many times God’s words in these verses are quoted in the Old Testament. Ready for the list? These words are reiterated in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8,17; 145:8; Jeremiah 32:18–19; Joel 2:13; and Jonah 4:2.41 Whew.
And that doesn’t even count how many times paraphrases of these words are in the Bible. Since you ask: They’re in
Deuteronomy 5:9–10; 1 Kings 3:6; Lamentations 3:32; Daniel 9:4; and Nahum 1:3.
So the writers of the Bible obviously thought this was pretty important, a foundational statement about what God is like.
But here’s something strange: As Laney points out, modern theologians hardly mention these verses when discussing God’s attributes. In fact, in the massive classic Systematic Theology by L. S. Chafer, he doesn’t even quote these verses at all, in hundreds of pages describing God! Somehow this has fallen off the radar.
Yet this is how God describes Himself.
I think we’d better take a closer look.
The historical context is crucial: This comes at a moral low point for Israel.
In Exodus 32, Moses is meeting with God on Mount Sinai to get the tablets of the law. Meanwhile, the people of Israel decide God’s taking too long to get back to them, so they’ll make a golden idol to worship –a god more to their liking, who keeps their agenda, on their clock. It’s that old problem again: Preferring the gods we make to the God Who is. Wanting a puppet godlet whose strings we can pull instead of the One who really pulls the strings.
In the next chapter, a discouraged Moses meets with God and says,
“If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you” (Exodus 33:13). Then he ups the ante and says,
“Show me your glory!” (v. 18)
Moses is asking for God’s full self-disclosure. He longs for a genuine look at the core of the Creator, the depths of the Divine. Idol-free worship.
Because of what has just happened with the golden calf, I would completely expect God to answer with something like: “Moses, you have failed in your leadership miserably. You are being replaced. I am a very angry God and you humans drive me crazy. I part the Red Sea, I lead you with the fire, and this is the thanks I get?! You’re gone, you’re toast!”
What actually happens is this:
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Exodus 34:5–7a
God describes Himself in the very moment of an entire nation’s rebellion…
…and focuses on His love.
Look at each of the words God uses.
The Hebrew word translated “compassionate” literally means “love rooted in a deep bond.” Deep bond?! The people had basically just spit in His face! But God is talking about His bond of love for us. It reminds me of Jesus on the cross, loving the very people who spit at Him, insult Him, and nail Him to wood.
According to J. Carl Laney, the Hebrew word here means “a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need.” It’s unconditional love in action. By it God defines Himself.
Slow to anger.
Despite popular misconceptions, God does not have anger management issues. The Hebrew expression for patience used here literally means “long-nosed,” referring to the tendency for your nose to get red when you’re mad. God says, maybe with a trace of a smile, that it takes a long time for His face to get red! He’s saying He is in no hurry to judge sinners (huge relief to me).
Abounding in love…
The specific word for “love” here means “loyal love.” I may be disloyal. I may fail in my promises. I may prove unfaithful to my confession on any given day. Yet God is loyally loving to me through it all. In fact, the word “abounding” means He overflows with this —
Feelings of love are not much good without faithfulness. Maybe someone told you once they loved you. And they might have even meant it at the time. But they were not faithful.
I am so sorry for your pain. But I want you to know: God is not like that. He will never say, “I am just not in love with you anymore.” He abounds in faithfulness!
And God just keeps defining Himself as One who loves:
Maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
I love that word maintaining. God’s love is not just a noun; it’s a verb. He actively keeps a steady supply of love going to the wicked, rebellious, and sinful.
He doesn’t just feel love; He does love.
One scholar says the word “thousands” means “thousands of generations” so this means He is the source of love to all people in history.
Of course God also explains later in these verses that there will be consequences to sin. Listen well, because these are words of warning from One who loves you: Those consequences will be felt not only by you, but may ripple out to your family, perhaps even for generations.
Because you love, you warn your children.
Because God loves, God warns His children.
But again, what is the big picture? In word after word, in His great self-revelation to Moses, God focuses on His infinite, loyal, faithful, love in action!
This, He says, is His glory.
What’s your response to all that?
When Moses hears this, the Bible says he
“bowed to the ground at once and worshiped.” (Exodus 34:8)
God reveals the most important thing to know about Himself: He loves us. And Moses loves Him back.
The most important thing you can know is that God loves you.
And the most important thing you can do is love Him back.
What other response is appropriate when I hear the God of the Universe emphasizing, not His power, or even merely his objective presence, but His love? To me?
To me, the one who has fashioned idols when I thought God was taking too long to get back to me.
To me, the one who with that crowd at the base of the mountain has at times worshipped the stupid golden calf of pleasure or prestige or possessions or (most insidiously) pride of religious performance.
To me, to you, God suddenly appears in His glory and unexpectedly announces… His powerful love.
Wow. As you study the love of God this week, may you too be moved as Moses was — to bow and worship!
God is… love.
Questions For Reflection
What intrigues, impresses, or surprises you about God’s self-description in Exodus 34:1–10?
What difference does it make for you to believe these things are true of God?